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A Word on Birds

Although parenting methods vary in the bird world, there are some important commonalities to keep in mind before you offer assistance. Photo by Jamie Pham

Spring is in the air, and it’s prime nesting season for wild birds. Zoo grounds are inviting to many parent birds, so if you should have the good fortune to see any wild bird nests during a visit, please be conscientious about our local feathered friends and keep your distance. You may also be noticing birds raising babies in your garden or local parks. As the season progresses, chicks will fledge and, although they may look like they need help when squawking and flapping awkwardly in branches and on the ground, many do not need rescuing at all. Before you act, learn as much as you can.

Like human offspring, baby birds go through developmental phases that involve mastering various skills, which often requires practice and failure. Most baby birds that might seem to be floundering have anxious parents watching and waiting nearby. Here are some tips for deciding whether a baby bird really needs assistance from you.

Nestling birds are not yet feathered. Their eyes may be open or still closed, and they may be covered with down or “pin” feathers (like quills) or may still be naked. These need to be returned to the nest if possible so that their parents can keep them warm.

A crested tit in its nest
Nestling birds may be naked, like these crested tits, or covered with fluffy down.
Red-tailed-hawk nestling in a tree
Raptor chicks, like this red-tailed hawk nestling, must learn difficult-to-master hunting skills from their parents in order to survive. Photo by Jamie Pham

Fledgling birds are mostly or entirely covered with feathers but may not yet be able to fly. They tend to hop around on the ground, often complaining noisily. These should be placed gently on a branch in the nearest shrub or tree, low but off the ground. Once people have cleared the area, the parents should return to feed the chick. Watch from a distance if you are not sure. Give them plenty of time.

Young American robin in nest
Fledglings of many species, including this young American robin, can be noisy and conspicuous—but at least one parent is usually nearby keeping watch. Photo by Tad Motoyama
Sparrow on a branch feeding younger sparrow
Bird parents often continue to feed and tend their young even when they have long outgrown the nest. Photo by Tad Motoyama

Birds that are obviously injured, sick, very cold, or cannot be returned to the nest, will need the care of a specially trained wild-life rehabilitator. It is illegal to provide more than emergency care for wildlife without a rehabilitator’s license. The Zoo is not able to provide rehabilitation for a variety of reasons, but information about licensed local wildlife rehabilitators who can help is available from Audubon Los Angeles as well as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Hummingbirds in a hummingbird nest
Hummingbirds steal spider webbing to use in constructing their nests. It allows the nests to expand as the chicks grow. Photo by Jamie Pham